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Brilliant sunshine and the best in contemporary roots music greeted thousands of fans as they flocked to Cherry Hinton Hall grounds last weekend for the Cambridge Folk Festival 2023. Four main stages hosted a dazzling array of artists from world-renowned headliners to the brightest rising stars. The full programme of extra activities at both the Cherry Hinton and Coldham’s Common sites, from talks to tai-chi and choirs to clog dancing, made for a packed and hugely enjoyable event.

Amongst Thursday’s highlights were indie-folk Londoners Flyte who impressed with their fine songwriting and exquisite harmonies, Swedish duo Symbio, who cleverly combined traditional hurdy-gurdy and accordion with electronic dance beats and Ibibio Sound Machine who brought Stage 2 to a thrilling close with their fusion of Afrobeat, funk and drum and base.

The 2023 programme drew praise for being one of the most diverse in the Festival’s history and this was illustrated clearly on Friday when performers included folk mainstays Sharon Shannon, Eliza Carthy, Siobhan Miller and Daori Farrell, alongside a cross cultural blend of sounds from Scottish/Egyptian instrumentalists and composers The Ayoub Sisters, the soulful Lady Blackbird in a quite extraordinary performance, trend-setting American hip hop band Arrested Development, who literally had the whole crowd jumping, and enduring Scottish hit-makers The Proclaimers who raised the roof with their headline set.

Earlier in the afternoon, the well-attended family ceilidh encouraged everyone to their feet and The Songlines interview, conducted by writer Kevin Bourke, offered a fascinating insight into the career of Scottish singer-songwriter Ross Wilson aka Blue Rose Code, following his fabulous Main Stage set.

Angeline Morrison, whose career has exploded since winning last year’s Christian Raphael Prize opened Saturday’s proceedings on Stage 1 with her Sorrow Songs Band and set the tone for another glorious day of music. 

Festival-goers were treated to the first of two exhilarating appearances from Quebec’s The Vent du Nord, who recently celebrated their 20th anniversary, the much-vaunted Gangstagrass playing an unprecedented mash-up of hip-hop and bluegrass, Americana stars Ferris + Sylvester, punk-inspired trio of Swedish sisters Baskery, and protest singer, LGBTQ+ activist, stand-up comedian and folk star Grace Petrie who drew the longest queue of the weekend at her post-show signing tent session. 

“First lady of folk” Kate Rusby made a very welcome return to Cambridge, crowning her 30th anniversary year. During a heart-warming set, Kate introduced her daughters Daisy and Phoebe on stage to sing with her on Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright)”, a track from her lockdown covers album ‘Hand Me Down’.

The annual Festival session, led by Brian McNeill, was a high point for many and demonstrated the skills of the many fine musicians in this year’s programme who joined him on stage.

Continuing the long-standing relationship between Cambridge and the multi-talented Wainwright Family, the inimitable Rufus Wainwright headlined Saturday evening, showcasing his new Folkocracy album and gems from his catalogue.

Rounding off the evening in style, the Isle of Skye’s electronic dance and trad fusion band Niteworks emphatically got the party started and the Silent Ceilidh kept revellers dancing into the small hours.

The rich baritone of First Nation Canadian singer-songwriter William Prince provided the perfect start to Sunday’s entertainment on Stage 1, where he was one of the weekend’s newfound highlights. Meanwhile, the youngest Festival-goers enjoyed the kids’ show on Stage 2, presented by Cbeebies’ Nick Cope.

The day’s exemplary line-up included not one but two Folk Legends slots: Judy Collins was accompanied by the Unity String Quartet in a very special performance presenting her landmark 1967 album Wildflowers, and Cornwall’s Fisherman’s Friendsbrought back their rousing sea shanties, hot on the heels of the Fisherman’s Friends 2 film, the second instalment of their incredible story on celluloid. 

Leading US actor Kiefer Sutherland, perhaps best-known for the Emmy award winning TV series ‘24’, made a much-anticipated appearance on Main Stage 1 playing tracks from his critically acclaimed new album ‘Bloor Street’ to a wildly enthusiastic crowd.

Stage 2’s stand-out moments included young Palestinian-American violist Akram Abdulfattah’s energetic mix of jazz, middle eastern sounds and beats, British singer-songwriter and keyboardist Hollie Cook’s reggae-influenced “modern-day lovers rock” and the inspired combination of Welsh harp virtuoso Catrin Finch and Colombian joropo dance band Cimarrón.

As twilight approached, four-time grammy award winner Angélique Kidjo delighted the crowd with her stunning multicultural show blending West African traditions with R&B, funk and jazz.

Ireland’s finest, Imelda May then took to Stage 1 to bring the Festival to a close, concluding a weekend which celebrated the joyous coming together of music fans from all walks of life under the wide, global umbrella of folk and roots music. During her set, Imelda paid tribute to the late Jeff Beck and to her friend Sinead O’Connor who was lost so recently. After her first song, Imelda changed part of her outfit into a t-shirt she had made herself bearing Sinead’s name her penultimate song was a profoundly emotional rendition of O’Connor’s hit “Nothing Compares 2 U”, with the audience joining in on the main refrain.

The brand-new look Stage 3 was a great success, hosting showcases from English Folk Expo, Showcase Scotland Expo, Wales Arts International and Culture Ireland, as well as selected artists from around the globe. Fresh favourites were discovered and new folks welcomed into the Cambridge family; the perfect platform for championing the “grass roots” end of the music industry.

In a beautiful location near to the duck pond, The Den stage once again supported emerging talent with a superbly curated roster of young, stars of tomorrow. Eighteen of the performers were considered for the prestigious Christian Raphael Prize and 2023’s winner is Northumbrian folk singer, composer and fiddler Frankie Archer, whose bold combination of traditional songs and electronic loops has already won praise from the likes of Mark Radcliffe and Jim Moray. As part of her prize, Frankie will return to play next year.

This year’s Festival was dedicated to the memory of veteran British journalist Colin Irwin, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last November. Through his reviews for national publications The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Mojo, Melody Maker and fRoots, Colin played a bigger role than any other writer in making Cambridge THE folk festival in the UK. Tributes were paid to him across the weekend.

For those unable to attend or Festival-goers wishing to re-live the fun, Mark Radcliffe shares a selection of live highlights on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show, Wednesday 2nd August 9-10pm, including Eliza Carthy and The Restitution, Angeline Morrison & The Sorrow Songs Band, and Rufus Wainwright.  A dedicated two-hour programme of highlights will also be available on BBC Sounds from the same date.

Keep a look out for announcements about Cambridge Folk Festival 2024.

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Press Quotes:

“…a weekend of highlights…”  The Scotsman ★★★★★

“Fast approaching its sixtieth birthday, Cambridge Folk Festival was sounding better than ever with a line-up boasting US and African musical legends and artists hailing from Sweden to Colombia on its diverse bill.”  Entertainment Now ★★★★★

“Cambridge Folk Festival offers exhilaration, eclecticism and excitement from a festival older, by 5 years, than Glastonbury.”  At The Barrier

“One of the key festivals of the year, Cambridge Folk blends the intimate and the boisterous like few others”  Songlines

“Cambridge is a reminder of a kinder gentler time and, just for a weekend, we all returned to it.

The Arts Desk

a thoroughly good-natured event” The Guardian

“Year on year, it has evolved, staying relevant as the face of the genre has changed over the decades. Whether it’s classic folk or something more contemporary, the festival promises something for every folk fan.”  Evening Standard 

“For sheer class and integrity, it can’t be beaten.” The Independent

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